Climate change could destroy West Africa's cocoa farms, disrupting domestic and international economies, experts say.
By 2060, more than half of the cocoa-producing countries in the region may be too hot to grow the crop, according to a report released by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. If scientists can't engineer a drought-resistant cocoa tree, the international market will see a significant increase in prices, and West African nations may experience a spike in poverty, drug trafficking and food riots.
"Hopefully, Ghana or West Africa is able to adapt to climate change to maintain their cocoa production," said Peter Laderach, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. "People will continue eating chocolate. If they don't produce it, someone else will."
Worldwide, the cocoa industry is a $5.1 billion market, with West Africa growing more than half of the 3 million tons sold annually, according to the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF). Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest producers, but rising temperatures will make it difficult for these countries to hold on to that lead.
The cocoa industry is already reporting an estimated 1.5 million ton shortage by 2020. And El Niño weather patterns forecast for later this year could exacerbate the issue, as severe weather alters growing patterns, according to Coffee and Cocoa International, an industry publication.
While supply decreases, global demand is projected to rise. The United States and Europe have always been large buyers, but now that China and South Korea are also investing in cocoa products, market competition will only intensify, said Mbalo Ndiaye, the director of the WCF's West Africa office.
Such scarcity has had a profound effect on industry pricing. In 2000, cocoa cost $714 per ton, but by the spring of 2011, it was at a high of $3,775 per ton, according to Coffee and Cocoa International. Higher prices don't necessarily trickle down to farmers, whose abject poverty prevents them from making long-term plans to compensate for increased temperatures.
"We're dealing with some of the poorest countries in the world ... where there's political instability," said Elan Emanuel, a supply chain manager at Fair Trade USA. "Climate change is the least of their worries."
Problem for big companies and small farmers
Yet it's one of the main issues for manufacturers worldwide. Chocolate is used in a variety of products; lotions, body washes and even cosmetics contain traces of the bean. It's also a culturally significant crop for many countries. About 5.5 million cocoa farmers rely on the business for their livelihoods, passing down small family farms from generation to generation, Ndiaye said.
"We've been growing cocoa for years," he added. "It dated back from the colonial era."
However, cocoa didn't begin as a West African tradition. According to the WCF, it was the Mayans in South America who started the trend, using cocoa in rituals and assigning it a monetary value. Ancient texts show that a horse could be purchased with just 10 beans.
When the Spaniards conquered the Western world, Mayan infatuation with the bean jumped the Atlantic Ocean and spread throughout Europe. By the 18th century, countries around the globe wanted a taste of "theobroma cacao," or "food of the gods."
The bean hasn't lost its popularity, which is why conservationists are working to improve farming conditions in West Africa. Organizations have launched programs that teach landowners how to shade their cocoa trees and lay down ground cover to increase soil moisture. However, these methods will have only a minimal cooling impact. In the long run, no amount of simple adaptation methods will be exceptionally effective against rising temperatures.